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The sound within kabuki: Hanayagi of Edo townsfolk

Jun-ichi Konuma
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

No one uses the word hanayagi (gaiety). Of course, Japanese people are not unfamiliar with the word, but it is outside of the vocabulary that we use in everyday conversation and writing. However, hanayagi just happens to come to mind.

When entering the temporary gate, the people who gather in groups of twos and threes seem to exude a sensation of hanayagi, even if that feeling is somewhat artificially made.

An afternoon performance of May kabuki at the Heisei Nakamuraza Theatre. In order to allow the audience to experience Edo-style theatre, it is a different atmosphere from permanent venues such as the Kabukiza Theatre which is currently being remodeled, the National Theatre or the Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre. Spectators take off their shoes and sit in seats which are not separated by armrests. It feels like you are going to touch the person next to you.

Personally, viewing kabuki is different to me than concerts or modern theatre. By no means is kabuki an everyday experience. I only attend kabuki performances a few times a year, usually accompanying my mother. However, this uncommon experience is filled with many discoveries. Such discoveries also take place within the sound, music and venue of kabuki. Of course, the play's plot is at the center of the performance and it is interesting to follow such developments. Also, attention must be given to the posture of dancers, as well as the ceaselessly changing acting and the outstanding flamboyant posing of the performers. At the same time, in addition to such visual aspects of kabuki, the form of sound and music is an opportunity to reference the form of current theatrical arts which have become modernized, which is to say westernized or globalized.

The curtain opens with a swish.

Sounds emanate from shamisen lined up on the left stage and the narrator begins to speak.

From the audience's perspective, sound comes from the right. Next, in about the middle of the stage, kabuki performers begin to speak while gesturing. Sound emanates from the center and right of the stage, creating a three-dimensional, contrasting and complementary form which is not easily blended. This form sustains tension. The sound stops occasionally, creating another type of tension. Immediately, shouts of encouragement such as "Nakamuraya!" and "Narikomaya" originate from the audience gallery.

Then, from the seemingly empty and forgotten black bamboo screen on the right stage, there is the thin, weedy sound of a Chinese fiddle and the softly resonating yet metallic echo of a gong. The stage is horizontally broad and the distance between acoustic areas emphasizes the separation of each sound.

In addition to the voice of each performer, one appeal of viewing kabuki is the intense sounds of tsuke (using clappers to strike a wooden board) that emanate from the wings of the stage. These tsuke sounds increase the drama of the play by accompanying the movement and posturing of performers. In addition to adding emphasis to developments in the story, these sounds burn the bodies and movements of performers onto the retinas of the audience, almost like stop-motion film.

Midway through the performance, in addition to sounds from the stage, the roar of thunder from outside could be heard many times during pauses in the dancing. The sound of constant rainfall continued to patter on the roof. Perhaps these sounds were due to the temporary nature of the venue.

The afternoon performance finished with a showing of Megumi-no-Kenka (The Megumi Feud). This play deals with a fight between steeplejacks and sumo wrestlers. At the ending of the play when the two parties had reconciled, the rear of the stage opened and floats from the Sanja Festival were carried by many bearers onto the stage.

Amidst the shouts of encouragement, the audience could see the Asakusa area and the Sumida River flowing on the other side of the stage.

Last year, the Sanja Festival was cancelled due to the Great East Japan Earthquake, making it the first time that the festival had been held in two years. Additionally, the floats were new and it was the first time that they were revealed. Even more, the rain had suddenly stopped and the sky over Asakusa was a clear blue. I was utterly amazed.

My wonderful experience of visiting a small kabuki theatre from the morning was clearly different from going to an evening or matinee theatre performance or concert. Through my good fortune of visiting this temporary playhouse, in addition to the various sounds and music within kabuki, I witnessed how the playhouse itself became a vessel for the instruments and sounds, echoing natural sounds. Through such sensations, I was able to experience the hanayagi of Edo townsfolk.

Jun-ichi Konuma
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in Tokyo in 1959. Graduated from French Literature Department, Faculty of Letters, Gakushuin University. Music critic and specialist in music culture theory.
Was awarded the 8th Idemitsu Music Award (Academic and Research division).
His main publications include, Toru Takemitsu: Sound, Words and Images [Takemitsu Toru Oto Kotoba Imeji], Spellbound Body: The Journeying Musician Colin McPhee and His Times [Miserareta Shintai Tabi Suru Ongakuka Korin Makufui To Sono Jidai], Minimal Music [Minimaru Myujiku], (Seidosha); Bach's 'Goldberg Variations': World, Music and Media [Baha Gorutoberuku Hensokyoku Sekai Ongaku Medeia], (Misuzu Shobo).